Paddling Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area
Contributor: Meredith Tripp, July, 2016
I had been told that the log jams on the Sugar River running through Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area were passable, just barely, but passable to canoes and kayaks due to recent clearing work done during the Sugar River Cleanup back in late May and at last year’s cleanup. Hearing this I was intrigued and wanted to get back to Avon Bottoms after a 17 years hiatus. July 15 dawned cool, but cloudy, a fine day for getting on the river.
My trusty paddling partner (and husband, Dick) of many years last paddled in Avon Bottoms in 1999, some 17 years ago. It was quite an ordeal hauling over log jams, keeping on the main channel and finally hauling ourselves out of the river after dumping our canoe towards the end of the trip trying to inch our way over a huge log just under the surface of the water. This was especially embarrassing as a fisherman in his boat on the other side of the jam was trying desperately not to laugh. We do not like getting wet, me especially, so dumping our canoe is something we try really hard to avoid. I think we have dumped no more three or four times in our 50 years of paddling. Yes, we are that old and still paddling. But, I digressed.
We decided to paddle the same four mile section of the river we had previously paddled from put-in at Beloit Newark Road to take-out at Nelson Road, which passes through the middle section of Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area. The river was flowing rather smartly or so it seemed to us. Though no rain was forecast, the dark clouds bespoke otherwise and we decide at the last minute to throw our rain jackets into the canoe. Off we pushed downstream. The river’s current for the most part was readily discernible and with one exception we were able to stay on course on the main channel. This was unlike our previous trip a number of years ago when the current was so lazy that we ended paddling up several dead ends only to retrace our path and try again. For a short time the river was fairly open and I was able to take a few photographs, but that soon changed as we encountered more dead falls and strainers. As I am the bow paddler I needed to pay attention to the water so stowed my smartphone away. As the dark clouds gathered above us, we struggled to put on our rain jackets and maintain our course through the river’s offerings of aforementioned submerged tree limbs and strainers. A couple of times we were peppered with light rain. Let me say something about those submerged tree limbs/trunks. As a bow paddler it is my job to see them, but in dark water sometimes they are hard to discern until you are practically right on top of them and you have no other choice but to hold your breath and hopefully glide over them. This is a dicey situation and I suspect this is where most dumps occur when you hang up on a log just under the surface of the water. Under these circumstances we almost dumped twice.
As we approached the more sinuous sections of the river the more tree debris and log jams we encountered. That made sense as logs don’t circumvent bends well and tend to stack up. Typically, we would find our way through a mass on one side of the river only to realize we had to paddle vigorously to the other side where the next opening was. You don’t have much time to do this because of the fast current. Towards the end of the trip we encountered a log jam which as I think about it was about where we dumped years earlier. That same submerged log or its look alike was there, but with additional tree branches hanging over it which had been cut back to some extent. The depth here was about six feet so jumping into the water and pulling the canoe over the log was not an option. There was no getting through nor over this spot and no other openings through the jam so we had no alternative but to back out (not easy) to shallow water, pull out and portage around. The portage was through waist high, mosquito infested reed canary grass. Dick pulled the canoe and I pushed from behind. We both slapped at mosquitoes. Dick tripped several times on grass hidden logs and sprawled rather unceremoniously, unhurt on a cushion of grass. Once back in the water we left behind the major jams and finished our trip without further ado.
Would I do this trip again? Well, not in a heartbeat, but yes. It is challenging. No way would I try to lead a group paddle through this section. It is just too risky. It is not a leisurely, kick back your heels and let the current carry you on. If you go, you must pay attention, read the water and possess the paddling skills to avoid strainers, visible and not so visible obstacles lurking underwater.